By Andiswa Matikinca
“The community of environmental reporting is small but growing”, those were the words of Ugandan journalist and editor for the Global Investigative Journalism Network Africa as he introduced the session titled “Water and Trees” at the 17th African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC).
The session focused on some of the best environmental reporting from the continent and how it was done.
Speakers echoed a lot of the challenges as well as some of the opportunities which I have observed in my years of doing environmental reporting with Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism – heading up the centre’s geo-journalism tool #MineAlert.
In the past year where Covid-19 has taken the frontline of news around the world – the focus on environmental reporting seems to have taken a bit of a backseat especially when it comes to funding opportunities and getting environmental issues into mainstream news.
Despite all of this, it is good to see fellow colleagues soldiering on and tell important environmental stories across the African continent because our communities, which are at most times marginalised, depend on the environment for their livelihoods. This therefore makes our job of exposing environmental crimes and injustices as environmental reporters that much more important. The issues that we expose are also very important because environmental issues do not exist in isolation and the crimes that we expose usually impact other sectors of society as Nigerian journalist and speaker at the session, Francis Annagu, shared in his insights from his investigations on deforestation.
“Trees are important to the Baka people who are not farmers but are food gatherers who depend on nature – also understand the impact [of deforestation] on the economy and biodiversity. The opening of the forest invited poachers from all the neighbouring communities and it created another problem” he said.
Opportunities for environmental reporting
These were some of the opportunities that the speakers also touched on and are what I believe most environmental reporters who aim to create impactful work should be using:
Data-driven reporting – a recurring theme at this year’s conference has been the use of data in investigations and this has been a particularly important element in my body of work as an environmental reporter. Sourcing data from different platforms and governmental bodies allows reporters to dig deep into many issues affecting the environment which also relate to the lack of transparency, weak legislation and at times corruption. Liberating this data through our stories also puts the power back into the people’s hands as they are now equipped with more information which might have previously been hard to find.
Open source tools – open source tools also play a crucial role in environmental reporting and can be closely linked to data journalism as they are usually very helpful when sourcing the data to feed into environmental investigations. Some important tools shared by Annagu were Open Timber, Global Forest Watch and the Central African Forestry observatory which he has used in his investigations on deforestation.
Collaborations – collaborations between journalists and civil society also play a very important role in maximising the reach of our environmental stories as well as impact because we share similar issues and problems across the continent.
Different channels – Cameroonian journalist and speaker at the session, Boris Ngounou who produces environmental investigations for radio emphasised the importance of branching out environmental reporting through different mediums instead of exclusively focusing on print and online media. “There’s a growing interest in environmental stories. My advice would be – diversify the channels of sharing your work”. Podcasts have become a very popular way of consuming news and content so I believe that branching out into this medium for environmental reporting could prove very useful for growing the audience and reach of our work.
Access to information issues
A common challenge shared by two of the African journalists on the panel was the struggles with access to information as it is a known fact that government officials do not make it easy for reporters to gain access to important information using different gatekeeping tactics. I have personally dealt with a lot of requests for access to information and although my journey with these has been quite demanding and sometimes stressful, the existence of access to information laws has made it less arduous and for those who have not been as lucky – thinking out of the box in attempts to outsmart the gatekeepers has proved useful although it may also put their lives in danger.
Looking into the future for environmental reporting in Africa – I believe that there are many opportunities for us current reporters to grow this beat and bring in more journalists (especially early career journalists) to take it forward as there are a lot of environmental issues to report on in our respective countries with endless opportunities for collaborations.
As journalist and current Head of Policy and International Development at the Fojo Media Institute, Linnaeus University, Lars Tallat shared at the session – we need to integrate the issue of sustainable journalism and environmental reporting into our conversations.